The Statesman Vs. The Schoolyard Bully

The verdicts are rolling in from across the blogosphere and media. Obama won last night’s debate, Romney didn’t do himself any harm, the President seemed snarky and condescending, Romney was flat-footed and milquetoast, Obama was aggressive, Romney was passive.

Some of these things are true, but I have to wonder whether those people who thought Obama won the debate were watching the same debate I was watching.

Romney brought style and substance to the debate. He proved that he knew the issues, was familiar with the players, buried forever the impression that he was a neo-con warmonger, presented a steady, statesman-like vision of what United States policy should be, reiterated how crucial it is that America remain the leading force in the world, and tied in the importance of the domestic economy to foreign policy. And he did it without raising his voice, and with a demeanor that can certainly be described as “Presidential”.

Obama retaliated with sarcasm, interruptions, rudeness, and condescension. I’m sure it seemed like a zinger when it was discussed in debate prep, but how does this response to Romney’s assertion that our Navy is too small read?

Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships.

It reads poorly, like the childish taunt it is. You half expect Obama to finish this statement by making a face and saying “Duh!” But as poorly as it reads, the tone of voice in which it was delivered was downright appalling.

This tone was Obama’s hallmark throughout the night. Every question was turned into an attack on Romney, whether it was warranted or not. Every Obama answer devolved into an accusation, whether true or not. Every Romney answer was rebutted with the mantra that it was “not true, not true”, though the truth is easy to check.

Watching the debate last night was like watching an argument between Mitt Romney and Holden Caulfield, a snotty, arrogant, teenager who is convinced that his opponent is a phony, a hypocrite, and a liar.

So why do so many people think Obama won?

Because in this era of 24-hour news cycles and reality TV we have become convinced that the winner of the argument is the person who shouts the loudest and who gets the last word. Last night, Mitt Romney participated in a debate. Barack Obama participated in what passes for debate on any number of news shows. You can see this on every news station, from MSNBC to Fox. It’s there on MSNBC’s “The Cycle” where the liberals shout down and browbeat the lone conservative. It’s there on Fox’s “The Five”, where the conservatives shout down and browbeat the lone liberal. It’s there on almost every news interview with two competing points of view. It’s there on talk radio (and I exempt Rush Limbaugh from this because he rarely has guests or does interviews). It’s the hallmark of “The O’Reilly Factor” where the host constantly interrupts his guests.

We’ve become far too enamored of the soundbite. I know this is an old criticism, but it’s still valid. But on top of that, television has coarsened us to believe that the verbal bullies are in the right. He who shouts loudest and most often is “the winner.”

Barack Obama is perceived by many to be the winner of last night’s debate precisely because he was bellicose and rude. Too many people have become conditioned to believe that strength and aggressiveness are the same thing.

There’s no question Obama was more aggressive last night. But who was stronger? The guy who remained calm and steadfast, or the guy who acted like a schoolyard bully trying to provoke a fight?

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